Senshi Okami stresses discipline for youth
As the doors open onto the fourth-floor studio over Third Avenue, the smell of sweat and training mats wafts out. At the peak hour of 6 p.m., the gym begins to fill up with parents and children. Children come streaming out of the locker rooms in white gis – the traditional jacket and loose-fitting pants of the martial arts — some with white belts, others with yellow or orange. The kids skip to the mats and rushed to their positions, excited for the class to begin.
As the sensei leads them through their initial warmups, judo class at Senshi Okami has begun.
The dojo – the Japanese word for school – opened two years ago on Third Ave. between 154th and 155 Streets in Melrose. Dedicated to mixed martial arts, the gym offers judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, boxing, and capoeira – a dance-like fighting sport. While classes are also offered for adults, the focus is mainly on kids.
Hector Hernandez, who founded the school with George Pimentel, was teaching at the Tremont School of Judo, jiu-jutsu and Karate when the school closed. Hernandez didn’t want to lose the momentum that school had started.
“It was an obligation to the kids,” said Hernandez. “The kids need something.”
Hernandez, 37, began practicing martial arts in 2004, as a way to lose weight. He started with boxing, then moved to dong kickboxing, and soon after that discovered Brazilian jiu-jitsu – which, he says, changed his life. “I would have to say the love started with jiu-jitsu,” said Hernandez, who would go on to compete in the sport.
Initially the founders of the school worried that the school would have a hard time attracting students, and that people in the neighborhood were not familiar enough with judo to come in for a trial. But they were proved wrong almost as soon as the school opened.
“Believe it or not, there was a flood of students, which surprised us because we didn’t have much money to invest in advertisement,” said Jean Truaillot, whose students call Sensei Jean. “We teach our kids discipline above all else and it has helped them in their life outside of judo.”
The children’s program ranges from ages 5 to 11 in any choice of martial arts, and classes for teenagers start at age 12 and include adults
Carlos Nunez, a father of three students in the school, signed his kids up in the fall of 2013 and has been coming back ever since.
“I wanted them to defend themselves, be active, do something productive like an organized sport,” said Nuñez. “They’re more confident in themselves and have more self-control.”
Capoeira is a dancing combat sport originated in Africa and developed in Brazil, mainly by African descendants. In this practice, kids get into a circle and then try to escape any way they can. “You learn how to feign ignorance and play like you know, when you don’t know,” explained the school’s instructor Moses McCarter, who also uses the handle Bronx Capoeira.
McCarter first started studying the sport in 2002, moving to Brazil the same year to pursue it. He came back in 2005, where he began teaching in public schools. “Kids choose it because it doesn’t only include the sport, it also includes drums and music,” he said.
Hernandez has taken students to the Liberty Bell Judo Tournament in Pennsylvania to compete, and hopes to get them to the nationals in Florida this year. “Senshi Okami follows a leadership curriculum,” he said. “Sometime the kids teach each other.”
Parents sitting on the benches cheered loudly as the children paired up, bowed to each other and began their training. Some of the kids managed to throw their opponent over and some would fall with their opponent. Every time a student would execute a move, parents would stand up and cheer whether it was their child or not — shouting out names of children for support and at times being louder than the kids themselves.
As for the students, they seemed to relish the work and the attention.
“I like judo because I like to throw people and have fun,” said Elan Castro, 11. “It’s like dancing – it’s fast and you have to learn the steps.”